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Ah, chocolate. It’s an indulgence that’s impossible to ignore as a stand-alone food or ingredient. And, not surprisingly, chocolate proves to be sweet for consumers and restaurant operators alike. Even though it’s already part of menus at most limited-service eateries, more dining places continue to add chocolate items in new and innovative ways.
“Chocolate is a very popular product used in a variety of ways,” says Larry Wilson, vice president of customer relations at the National Confectioners Association (NCA). “It grows in demand during good economic times and is recession resistant.”
During a 12-month period ending this summer, chocolate sales in the U.S. grew 4 percent, the NCA reports.
Chocolate—particularly the dark type with a high percentage of cocoa—has been linked to cardiovascular health benefits. Cocoa beans are rich in flavonoids, which may result in heart-healthy antioxidant activity.
“We have the wind at our back on health and wellness, because of medical research published about chocolate and flavonoids and heart disease,” Wilson says.
As chocolate use grows, however, so does its cost. In August, cocoa prices hit their highest level in three years, and the International Cocoa Organization expects demand to exceed supply this year by some 115,000 tons.
Some 59 percent of all limited-service restaurant operators feature chocolate in at least one menu item, according to market research firm Datassential. That is slightly higher than 2013 and a 3.5 percent increase over five years.
“Chocolate is a very mature category, and the fact that it is still growing indicates how popular it is,” says Maeve Webster, Datassential’s senior director.
The largest gains since 2009 are items describing specific chocolate types. Dark chocolate mentions jumped 25 percent at limited-service restaurants, while white chocolate rose 21 percent and milk chocolate was up 19 percent.
“People are looking more at specific types of foods,” Webster says. “It’s not just tomatoes, but heirloom tomatoes; not just coffee, but dark roast. People want to know the specifics of what they are eating, so generic chocolate is not as impactful as it was.”
Chocolate comes from cocoa beans processed into bitter cocoa solids and creamy cocoa butter. Dark chocolate has the highest percentage of cocoa solids, plus cocoa butter and sugar. Milk chocolate contains cocoa solids, cocoa butter, milk, sugar, and vanilla, and white chocolate is cocoa butter, milk, sugar, and vanilla.
Chocolate has been part of quick-service restaurants for years. Ray Kroc, who built McDonald’s into an empire, was a milkshake-machine salesman and sold mixers to the then-small chain for chocolate and other flavor shakes before he bought the company.
Today, 58 percent of chocolate menu items are desserts and 31 percent are beverages, notably shakes and coffee drinks, Datassential reports. All-day menus have the most chocolate mentions, followed by breakfast, due to coffee beverages and baked goods.
A growing number of quick serves feature brand-name chocolate candy and cookies as part of their beverage and dessert menus. Dairy Queen’s Blizzard, which mixes in branded treats, has been taking advantage of this trend since its debut in 1985. Nowadays, brand-name chocolate candy and cookies dot the limited-service landscape, from Burger King’s Hershey’s Sundae Pie and Cousins Subs’ Chocolate Chip Cookie with M&M’s.
Hershey’s foodservice team works with operators to create permanent menu items, and has helped develop products like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and Heath Blizzards at Dairy Queen. There’s also the Ultimate Hershey’s Chocolate Chip Cookie at Pizza Hut, which is a deep-dish, eight-inch cookie that launched in June. It is the second pairing between Pizza Hut and Hershey’s; Chocolate Dunkers were introduced in 2008. The Ultimate Hershey’s Chocolate Chip Cookie, like pizza, is shareable, perfect for families and groups of friends or coworkers, says Courtney Moscovic, a Pizza Hut spokeswoman.
Pizza Hut joins many other pizza restaurants using a chocolate dessert to set themselves apart from the competition. Toppers Pizza did that this year with a new addition to its Topperstix, the company’s take on cheesy breadsticks. Chocolate was added to the Bacon Topperstix. The new item, which combines bacon’s saltiness with chocolate’s sweetness, has been mostly a hit, says Scott Iversen, vice president of marketing for the 65-unit operation based in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Guests “either love it or it’s too weird for them to wrap their head around.”
The chocolate is a fudge, similar to cake frosting. “We drizzle it on at the very end [of baking], and it melts down as sort of a glaze,” he says. The chocolate is also available as a dipping sauce for any of the other five Topperstix varieties.
Persona Neapolitan Pizzeria features several dessert pizzas, including its version of a S’more, with graham cracker crumbles mixed with butter atop fresh pizza dough and covered with miniature marshmallows and milk chocolate.
“Everybody has a memory of camping and making S’mores,” says Glenn Cybulski, cofounder of the Santa Barbara, California, pizza parlor that opened in 2013. The wood-fired oven provides a smoky flavor that enhances that reminiscence.
Persona’s Chocolate Caramel Gelato Pizza begins with a crust that is topped with virgin olive oil and baked for 30 seconds in the 800-degree oven. Caramel is added, followed by a dark Ghirardelli chocolate drizzle, scoop of gelato, and nonsweetened whipped cream. “That dessert is off the hook,” Cybulski says.
The Red, White, and Blueberry pizza has white chocolate atop the crust, with blueberries and strawberries added along with a dark chocolate drizzle and sweet whipped cream.
Atlanta-based Wing Zone has taken traditional dessert items—apple pie, banana cheesecake, and chocolate brownies—and turned them into fried, bite-sized portions. The brownies are dark chocolate cake with chocolate fudge in the center.
“It’s quite rich and will take care of your chocolate fix,” says Dan Corrigan, marketing manager at Wing Zone. “Customers have definitely gravitated to these sweet options.”